Based on many Christian novels, you’d think their authors were chronically, willfully single midlife-crisis adults who had never once experienced or committed lifelong to true love. But that’s not the case. Almost every Christian author been happily married for years.
So how come many authors’ fictionalized love stories are so bleeding-heart terrible?
Certainly this applies to the dominant “romance” genres on Christian bookstore shelves (cozy romance, historical romance, contemporary romance, short-story romance, overly-angst-ridden romance, love-triangle romance, contemporary cozy historical romance, etc.).
Let’s briefly address all those dominant adjective-romance genres. Yes, this is Speculative Faith, and not a mainstream-fiction site. But it also helps to survey our (friendly) enemy.
First you might of course join me in opposing the very notion of romance as a separate genre. No one writes or publishes fiction focusing only on how one joins a local church, has children, or advances in careers; we don’t have “cozy motherhood” novels or “historical local church” genres. All these are subsets of real life — our greater stories. So is romance.
Second, what about all those classic works too often viewed as “romance”? Start with, of course, Pride and Prejudice. Anyone who applies a “historical romance” label to that classic deserves a two-hour lecture from a dry literature professor. That classic is not romance. It includes many other facets: then-contemporary social criticism, human relationships and conflicts, family cultures (and cults), and much more. Yes, there’s romance in it, and a fine romance too, but that along with other “genres” are means to other ends. Just as in real life.
There, genre criticism done. Now what if romance-as-genre were abolished? I fear we’d still have the same problems of badly written love stories. Why? Because I have endured them in many Christian speculative novels as well. No, not romance-alone books, not mainstream stuff — and not in badly written books. These are otherwise fine, upstanding stories that I did enjoy reading and may recommend. But their love-story subplots are simply strange.
No, I can’t name names here; I’ll get in trouble.
- Fatalistic romance. Two characters are so obviously “meant for each other” that the fictional universe itself favors that axiom. So fate arranges “coincidental” events such as mutual quests, chance meetings, and perhaps the ever-popular “stuck in a cabin during a snowstorm” setup. It’s a whimsical concept that makes for great animated shorts. But when this forms the music of fiction, much more so every love-story fiction, it’s dull and discordant. Here we find no element of surprise, no free choice, nothing like true love.
- Free-willie romance. Against every clear fact, authors keep trying to pretend that two characters so clearly can’t Be Together, and are silly enough to think readers will accept the farce. Thus characters make stupid free-will decisions that make no sense for real human beings (even stupid ones). Their only goal is to draw out the story needlessly. So here there’s not even a hidden sense of the clarity that does often accompany true love.
Why these two absurdist approaches to romantic subplots, especially from novelists who have been married for a while and should presumably know better? I’ve given a great big hint for the first possible diagnosis in those two emboldened terms above:
1. Authors misunderstand the character of God and nature of His love.
This is the prime divine mover behind all bad romance: if you don’t believe in Biblical truth about God and His love, you’ll have skewed views of all love. And mutilating the truth that “God is love” is a cottage industry among many evangelicals. No, I’m not only talking about Rob Bell and other universalist authors. Popular and otherwise good teachers have already wrongly taught of “God’s love” far past the point of parody. I don’t believe they think God’s love does not mean that He isn’t holy, hateful of sin, or willing to pour His wrath on Christ in our place. But many do prefer simply not to talk about such things very often. And of course, “we don’t talk about that truth” soon becomes “we don’t really believe that truth.”
That’s how we get both romance extremes, the fatalistic and free-willie strains.
The free-willie strain is easier to explain: most evangelicals posit a loving God Who, they must conclude, is ultimately overruled (of His own volition) when it comes to our free will. Why then should a fictional romance have any direction, clarity, or maturity in Christ?
So what could lead to the fatalism? Because people instinctively suspect that they somehow must “make up for” a lack of teaching about God’s sovereignty. Instead of basing belief in Scripture, though, they grab for humanistic notions of “fate.” They miss the equally Biblical truth that humans make meaningful choices, and within the parameters of our natures.
2. Authors draw from romantic clichés rather than their own stories.
This part confuses me. Everyone knows the slogan “write what you know,” which applies to writing about the kinds of people authors know even if they’ve never been to, say, Neptune. So why do romantic authors redirect that into “write what you know about other people’s romantic fiction” rather than “write what you know about your story”? That’s how we get the absurd stuff: overblown love triangles, needless angst, and choreographed situations.
If you’re an author and aren’t convinced, I’ll clinch the argument: this is what George “I Don’t Like Sand” Lucas did. Do you really want to follow in his footsteps?
So why might authors do that?
3. For some reason, authors may assume their own romances are abnormal.
Maybe some writers’ stories are abnormal — which is why we get major-motion-picture-style revisionist “romance.” But what about a Christian author who’s been happily married for years? Surely her love story is relatively rational, but she’s somehow concluded it was not worth using as a reference foundation for fiction. I can only suggest a few reasons why:
- Another evangelical cottage industry is the “you only know your true love after God fatalistically guides you to him/her” school. (See also: Voices From Beyond.) This is often mixed with the “true love waits” ideal. Many, perhaps wrongly, assume that ideal means “do it right the first time, or else your romance is subpar.” Might some Christian authors feel their own love-story experiences don’t conform to those idealistic notions?
- With or without that suspicion, authors simply assume their own love stories are just not as sexy as the fatalistic or free-willie clichéd stuff we get on the movies and TV. So real-life relationships, confusions, and even clarity are thrown out for the clichés.
For those reasons and others, the romantic myths continue. Characters act in unsurprising and dull ways as they fatalistically “fall in love,” or else make absurd free choices foreign to reality and only home to “pop romance” storylines meant to prolong the Agonizing Angst.
That stinks, and I don’t like it.
These are simple, so my list is limited.
- Everyone: let’s base our beliefs about any love first in Biblical truth of God’s love.
- Readers: find stories that don’t commit the above sins. Authors: write more of them.